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September 13, 2015 | by  | in Features |
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A Beautiful Place (to Lose Your Faith in Humanity)

Last week, the Huffington Post revealed to its readers that New Zealand’s jurisdiction over her territories extended beyond just the North Island. The cat was let out of the bag; the South Island, previously thought to be an apocryphal rumour as to where New Zealand’s really gorgeous scenery is, or an old wives tales (“eat yer veges or I’m sending you to Ashburton”), is a legitimate and extant island that is part of New Zealand’s sovereign domain. This is, in the words of a laconic salt-of-the-earth but no-nonsense Cantabrian farmer stereotype I just made up to prove a point, “something the North Island could remember once in a while as well”. The Cantabrian then expectorated onto his arid ground and complained about lack of water and having too much rainfall in one breath.

Our archetype has a point though. When it comes to New Zealand we’re pretty myopic, often relegating any islands that aren’t “North” or “South” to a kind of quaint cousin status. This is especially true when it comes to the more obscure or remote islands over which we claim domain. Even the whole “New Zealand has three islands” claim is errant, as this relegates the Chathams, the Aucklands, the Kermadecs et al. to oblivion. Yet their distance from New Zealand, and the New Zealand psyche, is more than geographical.


Fittingly enough, I am currently typing this article from the final frontier of the South Island: Dunedin. I find the locals unusual; their mannerisms and tolerance to the cold perplexing. Their definition of “snow” is very liberal and assuredly not based on meteorology; once, upon witnessing a tiny sprinkle of precipitation out of a window, the people in the same room as I clamoured around and yelled “snow!!!” before going outside, faces awed to “play in it”. It was only drizzle, but I hadn’t the heart to go into definitions. Other than showing myself to be a foreigner during these rituals I think I am infiltrating the scene rather nicely, talking about the frigidity of the weather, the quality of SoGos and how great Dunedin music was in the 1980s.

But there is something about all cities and towns this far south that makes them seem like a final frontier of some kind. “Taiwanese Centre: Last Taiwanese community until South Pole” read one sign, next to a church called “MakersPlace”, replete with the same design and font of the allusion. This sort of idea is pretty common in the deep south; a construction of themselves as members of some kind of last bastion of civilization. It all feels as though, should the world compress itself into two dimensions in lieu of three, then this would be the edge of not just civilisation but the entire world.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been enchanted by the idea of Stewart Island; literally the last inhabited outpost before the Pole. Go south from there and you’ll find nothing but ‘tarctica. While it might be a stretch to call the place civilised—there are yearly gun deaths, a simulacra of a library and, according to someone I spoke to in the Department of Scottish and Irish Studies (name and address withheld), “there are no civilised people south of this. This is as far as it goes”. The island’s main community, Oban, has about 400 permanent residents, with a couple more scattered around the place and a couple of malingerers in Halfmoon Bay.

Stewart Island’s main community, Oban, has about 400 permanent residents, with a couple more scattered around the place and a couple of malingerers in Halfmoon Bay.

I’m fascinated by the place more than I can say, because they’re New Zealanders—our kin, our countrymen etc—about whom we know nothing, and they us. They’re a different, unexplored kind of New Zealander in a different, unexplored, often-ignored area of New Zealand, and they are just like us, bound to the same systems, living similar lives. Isn’t that cool! Forget the uproar over The HuffPo mistaking us for only having one island; if anyone deserves to feel piqued it’s Stewart Island, whose own compatriots forget about the place’s existence. Stand up and be counted, Obanites!

The thing about New Zealand, and its colonial and maritime pasts, means that going through all the settled and habituated islands is not unlike opening an endless Russian—or, in testament to the isolation—Siberian dolls. Each doll removed reveals another differently formed, long-buried secret. Remove Stewart Island and you’ll see etchings of the Chathams; eliminate the Chathams and there are the Kermadecs, open the Kermadecs and suddenly the Auckland Islands have revealed themselves to you. Trawling over all of New Zealand’s territories is not unlike tumbling down a rabbit hole of obscure lore, esoteric locations and a pretty staggering amount of land at our disposal.

The reason no-one talks about the Chathams, and especially the Morioris, is because it portrays Pākehā and Māori alike in a dreadful light. The evens run counter to the idea of a peacefully occupied Aotearoa; what’s even more unpalatable is that the Māori (a group with expansionist designs) were responsible for perpetrating the massacre, which would have happened in Fiji had the Pākehā not re-routed them to the Chathams instead. Anyway, suffice to say just one per cent of the Moriori population was left two days after the invasion and now there are no “full-blooded” Moriori left.

So it’s probably good that we don’t talk about the Chathams.

We don’t talk about the Kermadecs because the stories are so tedious, so soporific, it’s hard to take anything in mid-yawn. Even thinking about it makes me drift off mid-.

The Kermadecs are boring. Trust me.

But The Auckland Islands! A collection of previously inhabited islands, south of Stewart, belonging to New Zealand, and which are essentially gathering dust and silt and sand in the midst of disrepair. While the climate on these isles isn’t exactly tropical or balmy, and the yearly amount of rain might be off-putting to those who prefer a daily dose of Vitamin A, on the whole these aren’t treacherous or dangerous places. There’s nothing a bit of insulation and weather-appropriate clothing couldn’t fix; they’re within close enough proximity to maintain ties with the “mainland” while carving out their own niche of New Zealand-dom.

I suspect that within our lifetimes we’ll see these collections of atolls being somewhat settled and inhabited, for a variety of reasons—part of it will be the allure of remote, isolated desolation to schmucks like me, part of it will be because, as the New Scientist keeps insisting on telling us, we don’t have that much space left and why not expand onto land that’s already ours? It could also provide an alternative approach to the Refugee Quota issue, which is currently raging on Twitter—with lack of space commonly cited as a reason our miserly quota is so scant, why not use some unused space that we have at our disposal? It’s time to acknowledge that the islands’ time being unencumbered by humanity might be coming to an end. There are still new frontiers to explore and populate.

Or there would be if it wasn’t for the fucking Pitcairn Islands.


The Pitcairn Islands are technically the last British Overseas Territory, although most British consuls prefer either pretend they don’t exist or privately consider themselves emancipated from the isles. There are four islands, only one of which—Pitcairn—is peopled, if that’s not too strong a word to use for a place with only 56 inhabitants.

The islands are equidistant between New Zealand and Peru, but because only one of these countries has ties to the motherland New Zealand has assumed a kind of surrogate-father position. The British Consulate responsible for the islands is based out of Auckland; they use the New Zealand +64 International Calling code; when Pitcairn Islanders face the wrath of the law (more on that later), they are tried in New Zealand. They’re like our guilty little secret, the child with attention deficit disorder than no-one quite knows what to do with.

The island itself is a pretty typical Polynesian atoll, about four kilometres by three, with fertile soil, gentle slopes, a couple of hills that the tourism board embellishes to “mountains” because their serried ranges do, it must be said, crowd the skyline. It boasts several unique indigenous species. The climate is mild, and I’m assured the panoramic views are things of awe-inspiring beauty. So it’s not exactly paradisiacal, but happily habitable? You betcha.

Though the island was completely uninhabited, traces remained of a previous Polynesian settlement. Priceless relics, gloriously-wrought stoneworks and even lodgings were dotted around the island.

In terms of Western settlement, there have been people on the island since 1790, when a group of mutineers aboard the Bounty and their Tahitian “wives” (read: slaves) settled on the island. Though the island was completely uninhabited, traces remained of a previous Polynesian settlement. Priceless relics, gloriously-wrought stoneworks and even lodgings were dotted around the island. Lacking any other form of leisure activity, the mutineers deemed it prudent and fun to throw these inestimably worthy artefacts in the sea during hard nights on the rum.

Things only deteriorated from there.

Perhaps we should have known, after such inauspicious beginnings, that no good could have come from this cursed isle. After the mutineers’ heated attempts at destruction and erasure of an entire culture, only one hallowed sculpture remains. You can see it at the Otago Museum because it STILL can’t be entrusted to anyone on the Pitcairn Islands themselves.

This is because the Pitcairns’ infrastructure and politics are a surreal, almost Kafkaesque mess. The closest analogies I can find to the way the place operates come from the village in Hot Fuzz village and the town in A League of Ordinary Gentleman, although to damage the Hot Fuzz metaphor these leaders would have no problem with rambunctious children.

The Pitcairns is run—and I say this without risking any possibility of libel or calumny—by paedophiles. Seriously. In 2004, charges were laid against thirteen Pitcairn Island residents—at the time, a third of the total male population—for sexual offences against children, ranging from possession of child pornography to multiple counts of sexual encounters with children. Amongst this depraved cohort was the Pitcairns’ mayor of the time, Steve Christian. He was found guilty.

In 2004, charges were laid against thirteen Pitcairn Island residents—at the time, a third of the total male population—for sexual offences against children.

Six years later the new mayor, Mike Warren, was charged with possession of images and videos of child pornography on his computer. Because of the island’s remoteness and the tenuousness of the law, the case still hasn’t been brought to trial, largely because no-one could decide where to have it. In the end New Zealand won out again.

Warren, far from being ousted, let alone voluntarily stepping down, continued to serve as mayor of the island for four years until 2014 when he was replaced by—wait for it—Shawn Christian, son of Steve, convicted during the 2004 trials, fresh out of penitentiary and eager to regain his family’s mantle and make his papa and “the boys” (what the cohort of rapists called themselves) proud. Christian is, as of time of writing, still the mayor, and it looks like it is a position he will be able to enjoy for some time to come.

Be assured that the grotesquery doesn’t end there. One of the more severe problems facing the Pitcairns—other than culturally normalised child abuse, of course—is the threat of extinction. The population is currently at 56, all of whom have spent the majority of their lives on the island. Without implementing a sound and appealing immigration policy, the island would be reduced to three people of working age by 2045. The British Consulate, terrified that they might have to take direct action unless something was to be done, told its subsidiary that they needed to come up with a scheme to get people there and there to stay.

Since the lunacy was writ in 2013, the Islands receive an average of 700 inquiries about immigration a year; so far, not a single formal application of residency has made, because this is what the denizens of the isle came up with:

—New migrants would be prohibited from taking jobs or claiming benefits of citizenship for an “undisclosed, case-by-case” time.

—New migrants are expected to have at least US$30,000 in savings (by way of comparison, the U.S. requires $10,000).

—New migrants would have to build their own house, at a minimum estimated cost of US$140,000.

—New migrants would have to spend the first two years doing community services—cleaning public toilets, keeping bushland kempt—for free or at their own expense.

—New migrants would be prohibited from bringing children under 16 with them in accordance with international law.

Assuming some masochistic soul did go through the rigmarole of this? After two years their “performance” would be “reviewed” by the island’s council—composed entirely, just FYI, of paedophiles, so at least you’d know how to answer the “are you planning on starting a family” question to their satisfaction—and so settlement is by no means guaranteed. A prospective immigrant might be reviewed for an indefinite amount of time; or they might be forced off the island after committing two years of free labour to it.

In return, you’d get to live in a settlement without access to a non-manual telephone system, radio or television. You would, however, have access to the internet—at 512kbps. for $100 a month, with a 2GB cap. Oh, and you’d spend your stay beholden to the whims of power-hungry and hopeless pederasts. Oh and one last thing, just a trifle really, but the only qualified high-voltage electricity technician, who manages all things electrical on the island, has reached retirement age and plans to retire within the year. He doesn’t have an heir. Good luck.

“In reality, no-one will migrate to Pitcairn Islands for economic reasons,” the council cheerily reported.

It’s no wonder that the Pitcairns aren’t drawing in the crowds, something that doesn’t seem to perturb the council unduly. “In reality, no-one will migrate to Pitcairn Islands for economic reasons as there are limited government jobs, a lack of private sector employment, as well as considerable competition for the tourism dollar,” the council cheerily reported in its 2014 Economic Report to the Crown. The sonic boom like sound that could be heard across the hemisphere once the report was delivered was generated from thousands of civil servants banging their heads against their desks simultaneously.

But what of that tourism dollar? The Pitcairns does boast tranquility, I suppose, and one of the only cafes in the world that uses coffee beans that have been literally digested and then expelled from a rare elephant. And just look at the reviews! “The coffee was disgusting, tasted like elephant poop? My friend left there with a black eye because an angry lemur wanted his crusty baguette. Hard to find, watch out for the cliff. All in all great experience! Will be back.” In a less (elephant) shit-posting comment: “My friend fell off of cliff. He broke a leg and the nearest hospital was 700 miles away. No airlift either. Nice elephant poop coffee, but hire a personal doctor.”

Even if they did have attractions worth the “36-hour detour”, it’s questionable as to how many tourists would show up. The island’s reputation precedes it, for one thing. Children under the age of 16 require a completed entry clearance application to enter the island, and must be supervised at all times even if this application passes. Grim. The Pitcairns also refuse to make passage to their island affordable, charging NZ$5,000 to tourists wishing to arrive via boat. For Pitcairn Islanders, the price is halved.

“The coffee was disgusting, tasted like elephant poop? My friend left there with a black eye because an angry lemur wanted his crusty baguette. Hard to find, watch out for the cliff. All in all great experience! Will be back.”

The Pitcairns represent the worst in insular boundary islands, the most hopeless and hapless and blissfully oblivious of their own hopeless haplessness. Soon, I suspect, the British Government will have to intervene and somehow clean up the residue of a failed experiment, and the place will lie empty and abandoned once again. Next time, at least, we have a better idea of what not to do when setting up a new island-state. As the adage goes, if you can’t be a good example you’ll have to be a horrible warning; in personifying the latter, the Pitcairns have succeeded admirably.


As I stated earlier, it’s time to acknowledge that, in order to avoid over-population and keep our infrastructure running, New Zealand might have to think not, as was the argument in Auckland recently, horizontally or vertically but instead laterally. We have voluminous expanses of space at our disposal, especially in the South Island (Fiordland, anyone?), Stewart Islands and the Auckland Islands, and they can be habitated without making these places ecologically unviable or ruinous. If we implement ecologically sound strategies in concurrence with expansion, we can have our cake and eat it too. Maybe the answer should not be whether to build up or along in Auckland, but to stop building in Auckland altogether.

But taking new land, conquering new frontiers, has pitfalls aplenty—cabin fever, insularity, remoteness and misplaced colonial pride. To that end the Pitcairns offer salient lessons. Let’s see if we can’t heed them.

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